I have been reflecting a great deal on the recent visit of Pope Francis to the United States and also on the range of responses to his presence in our country’s midst. Certainly the predominant response was one of exuberant admiration, but this unpredictable pontiff has a knack for keeping most of us on our toes. In most cases he left people both inspired and challenged. I am enthralled by the Pope’s continual attention to the delicate interplay between justice and mercy. During his recent visit this was perhaps most obvious and stirring (and for some controversial) in Pope Francis’s remarks about the death penalty and his urging that it be abandoned while calling for alternative measures that distribute mercy and justice more evenly.
In his statements and writings about his vision for the church-and by extension for the world-Pope Francis clearly advocates for a stronger measure of mercy (perhaps most notably and directly in his book The Church of Mercy). Pope Francis suggests that we need a world that honors both justice and mercy, not one in which people choose between justice or mercy. This tension between justice and mercy is present in all settings and all situations in which judgments and decisions that affect people’s lives are made, including in schools. This is an important consideration as we strive to create and enhance a “nurturing community” in our school as our mission statement states. How do we balance accountability with support? What does justice look like for a Kindergartener or mercy for a middle schooler? Developmental and contextual considerations obviously come into play. Do mercy and justice look different in an Episcopal school than in many other school settings? And in what way? The questions are many, and the need for discernment in every situation essential.
As I reflect on justice and mercy within the context of my years in school leadership, I can identify instances when I erred in both directions- too harsh in some instances and too lenient in others. At the same time I am grateful for those moments when a decision has proven to be both just and merciful, at least in the long term. I would hope that I have become more adept at finding the right balance more and more over the years. It is important to me to consider decisions I make within the context of justice and mercy because it speaks to the sacredness of the tasks I share with my colleagues in helping our students become the people God calls them to be.
I admire Pope Francis for his acknowledgment that ambiguity is deeply embedded in our lives and that there are no simple answers. Nonetheless we must continue to ask the difficult questions with both justice and mercy in mind. That is no easy task. Last month at a faculty meeting our division heads led an exercise centered on an article written by the now-former President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Pat Bassett entitled, “Twenty-Five Factors Great Schools Have in Common.” One such factor cited by the author is this: (Great schools) know their priorities when making difficult decisions, ranking first “what’s best for the school,” then “what’s best for the student,” then “what’s best for all other interests.” Some of our teachers suggested that the first two priorities ought to have been reversed. What’s best for the school? What’s best for the student? The best decisions are those when one can answer “yes” to each of those questions.
Until next time…